22 September 2010

Assisted dying: Holyrood & "religion in the public square"

Given the weight of religiously-inspired critical responses to Margo MacDonald’s End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill, I anticipated with great interest the 9th panel to give oral evidence before Holyrood’s scrutiny committee, consisting of figures from a range of Scottish faith groups. Curiously, the spokesperson from the Catholic Church seems to be appearing on another day. The following folk appeared in the parliament yesterday:

Rev Dr Donald MacDonald, Retired Professor of Practical Theology, Free Church of Scotland; Rev Ian Galloway, Convener, Church and Society Council, Church of Scotland; Major Alan Dixon, Assistant to the Scotland Secretary, Salvation Army; Dr Bill Reid, Connexional Liaison Officer, Methodist Church in Scotland; Dr Salah Beltagui, Convenor, Muslim Council of Scotland; Leah Granat, Public Affairs Officer, Scottish Council of Jewish Communities; John Bishop, Secretary, Humanist Society of Scotland.

It is grossly symptomatic of how trite the Scottish press can be that this significant session, addressing an important issue in the country’s religio-political life and the controversies of faith in the agora, was primarily reported in terms of an off-the-cuff, end of session remark made by a Church of Scotland Minister on the subject of medals. Quality press, my eye.

Helen Eadie began with an unexpectedly pointed question on the “the place of religious evidence” or as the Pope recently put it in Westminster Hall, on the ambit of “the legitimate role of religion in the public square”. This was followed up subsequently by Dr Ian McKee, who put it to the panel that “you’re trying to impose your morals and your religious beliefs on fellow citizens that don’t hold them” and contended that the panel’s appeals to mundane arguments about the social impact of legislative change were largely “side-effect issues”, obscuring the primary religious foundation of their arguments.

In response to Eadie, Dr MacDonald of the Free Church almost immediately embarked on an exegesis of the foundations of his belief in the sanctity of human existence – which underlines the crucial point. To ask someone if their Christianity is simply a personal belief is an absurdity, since it conceives of the faithful mind as if it only looks inward and has no worldview. Christianity posits a whole cosmology, Catholicism a whole redemptive economy. How can one coherently require of the faithful to shrug apologetically when they confess their faith in a higher power, as if to say – don’t take me too seriously; the existence of the Big Man upstairs is just my own dull apprehension. There are distinct questions about what we do, what provisions we make in our administration and law and concerns about the practical imposition of a particular worldview or how any of our convictions or ethical assessments ought or ought not to filter into law. However, the idea that Christians should be thirled to conceptions of “personal belief” is surely a nonsense. Religion, it seems to me, effects a general transubstantiation of the world. As Reverend Ian Galloway expressed it to the Committee, it is “a view of how life is.” The religious literally occupy a different world from those of us who don’t see the hand of the Lord at work in it. That said, atheists too shouldn’t have too relaxed a conscience. After all, the atheist worldview performs a similar act of encompassing those with radically different ideas about what the world is. If the godless feel vexed by the persistent belief in divine ontologies of God, saints, angels, divine sons and so on - feel put upon by the unwelcome figuration of sin being imputed to their lives - imagine the reciprocal difficulty the pious must have with atheistical empty cosmological space. Just as Christian theology encompasses those who don’t submit to it, so too atheism co-opts Christians.

One classic answer to these difficulties is the equalising function of the liberal public sphere, which is imagined as neutral arbiter between incompatible worldviews. One of the great virtues of this position is that it doesn’t mistake consensus for agreement in any fundamental sense on the axioms that lead us there. I'm sure I can have an interesting discussion with a Church of Scotland Minister on the importance of social justice, however even if we managed to agree on what we ought to do and how we should do it - we'd be making a mistake if we thought we'd had a wholesale meeting of the minds. Christ hovers over the Minister's shoulder, while I'm imagine myself in Christless conversation with my own daemon. That shouldn't cause us to devalue the consensus we achieve. By no means. Yet it should also caution us to recall the latent cracks and fissures atop which our consensus is precariously balanced.  

However, that equalising function presents problems, not least because it seems methodologically atheistic, premissed on an acceptance of the atheistical world view. Cauld Christian conform. A by-product of this, it seems to me, is that enthusiastic secularists can sometimes mistake methodological atheism for a precondition to participate in the public debate. That is the logic implied by Eadie's question and McKee's references to imposition. The same question would never be asked of a witness who didn't toddle into the parliament as representative of the Lord of Hosts. In short, the atheist is far more likely to see the world in terms of personal beliefs, figured in terms of an equalised public sphere. Participation in debate on these terms calls for no interesting transformations. Not so for the committed Christian, who has to move from one cosmological register of their faith to the artificial equality posited by the public debate. The panel immediately conceded that their intentions were not to impose, but an attempt to participate in the discourse, better to realise the best public good. They bowed head in obeisance to the equalising qualifications of the liberal public sphere. This seems to me to be what Archbishop Rowan Williams was referring to in his response to Pope Benedict the Umpteenth, during the latter's recent visit:

We do not as churches seek political power or control, or the dominance of Christian faith in the public sphere; but the opportunity to testify, to argue, sometimes to protest, sometimes to affirm – to play our part in the public debates of our societies. And we shall, of course, be effective not when we have mustered enough political leverage to get our way but when we have persuaded our neighbours that the life of faith is a life well lived and joyfully lived.

These seem to me to be wise thoughts which emphasise the double movement religious folk in the agora go through to put their views across. For those of us without faith, we would do well  to reflect on the fact that our views suffer no comparable ordeal as they cross into the echo-chamber of the public forum - and have some sympathy for our religious fellow citizens. We need not agree with them. Indeed, I oppose the gist of the testimony Holyrood received from this religious panel, as regular readers here will not be surprised to hear. This I would insist upon - a quick thought spent on the little ordeal of faith in politics in Holyrood yesterday, close to home, has much to teach us.


  1. Why not have 2 laws; one for the religious and the other for the non religious or those who wish to attest to the fact, before they fall into that state we all fear, a completely lacking in the quality of life, perhaps in excruciating, unendurable pain. A bit like the its of paper some proddies used to carry in their wallet that in case of a serious accident and possible death please do not ask a priest to administer the Last Rites.

    People would have to opt in, specifically.

    The next problem is those who quickly enter the aforesaid state without expressing any particular opinion, yea or nae.

    Opinions and thoughts please.

  2. LPW

    Can you not attach a follow up mail message system to those who wish to see following mails and save themselves the bother of logging in and out seeking the same.

    Like wot the other blogs have?

  3. An eminently sensible suggestion, Bugger. I've changed comments so you now add them via a pop-up window. This includes that helpful tickable button to send you the replies.

    Hopefully that'll be an improvement for folk.

  4. On your substantive point, arguably Margo's Bill does just that. Nobody is forcing the faithful to end their lives before they believe the Yahweh appears to claim them. By legalising the practice, whose who wish can avail themselves of it without fear of their relatives facing prosecution for furnishing assistance which might amount to a culpable homicide (or murder). Certainly nobody is proposing "death panel", compelling people to appear (and disappear into oblivion) before it.